The kilometers passed easily beneath my wheels; 4km from Bois to Conzieu, 1km from Conzieu to Crapeou, another kilometer to Ambleon and two more to Appregnin. The road carried me mostly north and slightly west up the valley and with every passing kilometer, I was moving steadily closer to the taller hills on the west side of the Bugey. Getting out of the valley would entail climbing and just two hundred meters shy of Appregnin, I would make a sharp left turn and begin the ascent of the Cote de Fuses.
In France, the January sun is low in the sky. While the roads in the center of the valley were getting their share of warming rays, the road up the cote, to the summit at Lac d’Ambleon, was on the shaded side of the densely forested mountain. The evergreens stood tall and silently proud, seemingly unaffected by any manner of weather. In stark contrast, the broad-leafed deciduous trees, crouching and nearly naked, had lost all but the most tenacious of leaves. My tires would crunch through the few ice-covered leaves that lay on the road, but the forest floor appeared to be thick with layer upon layer of fallen foliage.
While the air itself was chilly, the climbing kept me comfortably warm. In fact I unzipped my vest and one of my jerseys. There is something so nice about climbing through the quiet cold. With just the bike and breathing, I could focus on pedaling smooth round circles.
At one point, near the top of the Cote, there was a surreal moment. As the summit approached, the sun begin to peak its lazy head over the top of the mountain. I was pedaling moderately hard and could feel the warmth of the sun as the occasional ray struck my face. I came around the penultimate turn before the summit to see that the Lac d’Ambleon had completely frozen over. The road bent to the right and I emerged from the shade into broad sunlight. The sun’s brightness exploded off the frozen surface of the lake and for a moment, it was almost blinding. Frozen prisms cast their rainbow refractions from a million glistening facets of frozen splendor and I was overwhelmed by the multi-spectral whiteness of it all. But then, just as quickly, the road turned again, thrusting me back into the shade of the mountain. Briefly, the temperature dipped and for the next several hundred meters, I could hear my tires crunching on thin verglas (black-ice.) I let myself ride slowly, always sure to find the roughest part of the road where traction was the best.
Just beyond the frozen lake lay one final short slope to get to the top. And between me and the top, there sat a seemingly impenetrable wall of thick fog. I approached cautiously. To the left, the wall of fog met the rocky side of the hill. To the right, the fog extended like misty tendrils reaching out through the trees. I was fully expecting to completely disappear as I entered the fog. But, as quickly as I entered, I came out the other side. It was truly perplexing to me that any cloud or fog or mist could appear to be so thick, yet be so thin. And with that passing of the fog, I had summited the Cote du Fuses.
The descent back into the Rhone was fun. As this was a south-western facing slope and mostly exposed to the sun, the ride down was mostly predictable. But, as the road occasionally plunged through ancient forests, there were areas of startling cold, black-ice and short sections of slimy ooze.
So, I kept the speed in check and let my eyes enjoy the view. Even from the lower slopes of the Bugey, I could see over and across the fog of the Rhone valley below, past well manicured pastures and out to a horizon dotted with mid-evil chateaus and finally culminating in a dramatic alpine backdrop of snow-capped peaks.
By the time I reached Lhuis, the town near the bottom of the descent, my face had frozen into a grin of pure delight. This was France and I was riding on epic roads. With a contented smile, I continued down the gentle descent from Lhuis into the fog of Groslee and from there wove a very indirect route home.
The fog was thick enough that being on the main roads did not seem prudent. Instead, I chose the secondary and smaller roads, enjoying every pedal stroke as the bike carried me over narrow single lane roads and mud covered cart paths.
It was a fantastic 4 hours on the bike. I finished tired, cold and hungry, which made for a nearly perfect ride. Once home, I showered and changed into warm clothes. Robert and I headed to Morestel for well deserved pizza and beer. What an awesome day – Merci Robert!